The only thing Donovan Ellis, Seventh Duke of Gatewood, wants for Christmas is for it to be over. Too much sadness surrounds the holiday. Horrors he’d prefer to forget. Oh, there’s one present he yearns for with all his heart, but his foolishness pushed her into the arms of another. So if he can’t have the one thing he truly desires, then he just wants to be left alone to drown in his own misery. But when a ghostly apparition visits him, claiming things can be set right, can Donovan believe? Can he trust the Duke of Christmas Past? Or will meddling in the past bring more heartache than he already has to bear?
December 27, 1812
CHAIRS WEREN’T THE only things flying at Lord and Lady Freemont’s annual Christmas Ball. Throw in a duke, two appallingly outspoken ladies, an earl, a young naval officer, and enough fists to make Gentleman Jackson proud, and you have successfully recounted every delicious detail of this past season’s unmatchable scandal.
One has to wonder how it all started. Some say Gatewood was merely defending his sister’s honor. Others say Norcross seduced the wits out of not one but two women in the very same night! And the worst of the gossip, though it pains me to admit to it as such, comes to us in the form of a first-hand account. Miss Tess Warren was seen smiling, yes smiling (such a vulgar act to begin with) at the Duke of Gatewood not minutes before he was beaten with a chair. Now, what the devil (and please pardon my language, it really is inexcusable, but given the circumstances it must be said) does Miss Tess Warren have to smile about? And what, dear readers, has caused the good duke to lose his impeccable manners, not to mention his mind?
~Mrs. Peabody’s Society Papers
December 24, 1820
IT HAD COME to this.
Confining himself behind the walls of his study to avoid the festivities of the Christmas holiday.
Donovan Ellis, Seventh Duke of Gatewood, wanted nothing more than to forget the bloody holiday and all the foolery that went along with it. There would be no wreaths hung on the doors and no candles adorned with greenery would line the mantel. He’d threatened to dismiss Cook if she served him syllabub or Christmas pudding. Even so, I wager one of the servants will at least put a Yule log on one of the fires.
Donovan lounged in his high-back chair, sipping brandy and watching the fire. The snapping and crackling of the logs soothed him, broke the eerie silence of the townhouse.
He glanced sideways at the polished walnut table on his left, and his gaze settled on the silver tray bearing the decanter of brandy. Firelight flickered off the cut crystal and splintered, sending amber glints dancing across the floor. When Lawrence, the butler, had brought the spirits, Donovan had told him not to bother lighting the oil lamps, just one of the candles on the mantel and another on the small table by his chair. The dull glow did no more than place the study in shadow. That was fine with Donovan; the dark ambiance fit his grim mood.
A draft swept through the study, dimming the fire. The flames on the candles swayed, and the darkness swooped closer. Shadows climbed from the corners and loomed over him. He glanced at the bay window, checking that it was securely latched. But the reflection of the fire in the panes was all he could see.
As he started to turn back to the fire, a circle of bright light, high up near the top of the glass and just beyond the window, caught his attention and he squinted, trying to make out what the object was. Perhaps starlight? Even as he tried to convince himself of that, the orb grew bigger, floated closer and lower to the ground.
Donovan sat transfixed, unable to look away as an illuminated figure approached the window, passed through without pause as if the glass and wall weren’t there, and glided across the room, stopping close enough to the fire to be cast in its light.
Donovan blinked several times, his mind warring with what he saw. He glanced down at the glass in his hand. “I could have sworn this was my first brandy.” Lifting his head, his gaze again met the vision. “But I must be foxed and seeing things. Or my eyes fool me.”
Dark brown eyes — his dark brown eyes — stared back at him. Had it not been for the fact that he was sitting and the phantom was standing, he could have been looking in a mirror. The vision before him had the same dark wavy hair, broad shoulders that seemed to fill the room, and chiseled jaw.
The apparition crossed his arms. “Could there not be another explanation?”
Hearing the phantom speak with his voice unnerved Donovan, gave him pause. It took a moment for understanding to sink in.
“Ah. Dreaming, then. And not a very good dream, since I’d never wear such an outrageous burgundy tailcoat.” Donovan gestured in the specter’s direction with his glass. “Then again, I suppose I’m not actually wearing such foppish attire but having a nightmare.”
A smile tugged at the corners of the ghost’s mouth. “So you’d prefer to reason that you’re dreaming—”
“Having a nightmare… and a bad one at that.”
“Very well, having a nightmare, rather than actually believe I’m real?”
Donovan drained his glass then reached for the decanter, desperately in need of another. “On the contrary, I’m a logical man. And as such, I know it’s impossible for me to be lounging in my chair and standing in the middle of the room at the same time. Not to mention that you cannot be me if I’m me, unless this is a bad dream.”
“Yet you see me… you’re speaking with me.”
Donovan waved his hand. “That proves nothing.” He brought the refilled glass to his lips and drained the contents.
“Well then, you won’t object if I pour myself a glass of brandy.”
“Not at all. Happy to share,” he said. The shock of seeing a ghost glide through the wall had scared him, had been frightening indeed. But having a drink with himself as if they were old chums from university? Donovan smiled at the situation’s inherent humor.
The apparition walked over to the ornate walnut cabinet and retrieved a wineglass. He strode back, hefted the decanter, and poured a generous amount into his glass. Then he sat in the black leather high-back chair opposite Donovan’s.
“Forgive me, where are my manners. Please, have a seat.”
The specter met Donovan’s stare over the rim of the glass. He lowered the drink and smiled. “Think nothing of it. I hardly need an invitation to sit in my own home.”
What an arrogant, obnoxious ass — His home? Donovan opened his mouth to give the ghostly figure the set-down he deserved then shut it almost as fast. I think I need another as well.
He filled his own glass again then watched, a bit surprised, as the ghost swallowed down the liquor. But then again, if this is a dream, he didn’t really pour the drink, did he?
“A very nice brandy, your grace.”
“Is something amusing?”
“I was just wondering what I should call you.”
“You may call me your grace.”
Donovan snorted. “Your grace indeed.”
“I see your point. Very well, you may call me Past Duke,” the specter said.
“Why should I call you Past Duke?”
“I’m the past you, or rather the you, you should have been,” he explained.
Donovan furrowed his brow. “I beg your pardon?”
“Isn’t the past the reason you’re sitting alone in this dungeon of a study on Christmas Eve? Aren’t the events that took place, what happened between you and Delia, what didn’t happen between you and Tess, the reason—”
Rage coursed through Donovan’s veins, the memories once again clawing at his heart. He slammed his fist down on the arm of the chair. “Silence! Don’t speak of them.” With a trembling hand, he set the glass on the tray and stood. “I believe my imagination has been entertained enough for one evening. It’s long past time for me to retire.”
Past Duke rose slowly. “You don’t think I’m real.”
Donovan sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. His anger drained way, leaving him with a heavy heart. He had enough demons to fight without adding arguing with himself to it.
Past Duke drew his foot back and planted a hard kick to Donovan’s shin.
“Damnation, why the bloody hell did you do that?” he demanded, rubbing his throbbing leg.
“This isn’t a dream. Although I’d be more than happy to punch you in the nose if you need more convincing.”
Donovan glared at him. “I don’t advise that.”
“Avoiding me won’t make me disappear. I’m here to grant you one wish.”
He’d had enough. His patience had worn thin. “Then I wish for you to go away.”
The room fell silent. Past Duke seemed to blur, become faint. The embers in the fire dimmed to no more than tiny sparks. Both candles went out. A draft swept through the fireplace, sending a chill through Donovan’s body. He shivered.
“What the devil?”
The air stopped moving, forcing Donovan to draw in deeply to fill his lungs, making him dizzy. He tried to move but was frozen in place. Almost as if he’d been glued to the spot, as if the darkness was a prison.
Panic spiked through his body. Sanity had clearly deserted him, leaving him trapped in a nightmare. Wake up. Wake up now.
Donovan seemed to be spinning, then suddenly the fire crackled to life and the candles again illuminated the study. He whirled around, searching the shadowy corners. Relieved no demons were lurking about, he let out the breath he’d been holding. Just as I suspected. A bloody dream. A drunken hallucination, had to be. One that sobered me quite fast.
Conversing with myself. What a ridiculous notion. He retrieved the candle from the table. When he turned toward the door, Past Duke was there. Donovan’s body trembled and his heart thumped erratically, seeming to skip more than beat. The lightheaded sensation from a few moments earlier returned with a vengeance, and he dropped to his knees. The monster blocking his exit was Death come to collect him. He had to get out of there, get away before the demon took his life.
But isn’t that what you want? To leave this world? Leave the loneliness of having lost all those you love?
The fear coursing through his body seemed to answer back, No! I want to live! Get up!
Past Duke tilted his face toward the ceiling. “Why did I think this would be easy?”
Donovan lurched to his feet and backed away. The vision of himself filled the doorway, the room, demanding his full attention. “W-what do y-you want from me?”
The ghost stalked him. “I want the same thing you want. The life I should have had — could have had, if you hadn’t been such a blasted fool.”
“I-I-I don’t understand.” Donovan collided with the wall. His body shook so violently that his teeth banged against each other.
Past Duke stopped in front of him. “You will soon enough. You, my dear fellow, are going to go back to the past in order to fix it.”
“Fix the past? Fix what?”
“You’re going to set right what you did wrong.”
“I’ve gone mad,” he whispered.
“Your heart cries with the regret and sorrow. I’m the person you should have been, still can be. But only if you can set the future on the right course,” Past Duke explained.
A chill ran up Donovan’s spine. “What foolishness is this? I beg you for mercy. Let me awaken from this nightmare.”
“You’ve spent eight years punishing yourself far more than I ever could.” Sorrow crossed Past Duke’s face. The lines on his brow deepened; his lips turned down slightly.
“So your intentions are to make my suffering worse?” Donovan snapped. No one needed to remind him of what he’d lost… what he didn’t have.
“Of course not. I intend to send you back to Christmas Eve 1812.”
Donovan harrumphed. “And how would that be?”
Past Duke shoved him hard in the chest, pressed so forcefully Donovan was sure the apparition’s fingers touched his heart, causing it to momentarily stop. Then his thoughts ceased and darkness consumed him.